By Joe Starkey, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Sunday, October 16, 2011
Had to wonder what Mario Lemieux was thinking the other night at Consol Energy Center when his beloved sport morphed into studio wrestling.
I'm not referring only to Arron Asham's antics, for which Asham immediately and sincerely apologized. I'm talking about the whole sickening scene. One that repeats itself at NHL arenas across North America whenever a fight breaks out.
What was the word Lemieux used in his scathing letter to the NHL after the Islanders ambushed his Penguins in a flurry of gutless cheap shots last season?
Oh, yes. Sideshow.
Exact wording: "It was painful to watch the game I love turn into a sideshow like that."
Fast forward to Thursday night, Penguins-Capitals, five minutes into the third period of a competitive and reasonably entertaining game.
What transpired next said a lot about hockey's warped culture -- a culture into which Sidney Crosby soon will be reimmersed.
Capitals forward Jay Beagle and Penguins defenseman Kris Letang engaged in a garden-variety scrum along the boards. Letang bumped Beagle, who responded like a puppy, pawing at Letang's face. Letang's helmet popped off. The two skated their separate ways.
No big deal.
Only it was.
Acting upon hockey's sacred "code" -- which is about as decipherable as "The Da Vinci Code" -- Asham went to warn the wayward puppy.
Stop messing with our best players.
Think about that for a second. Did Letang really need somebody to tell a rookie named Jay Beagle to leave him alone?
It got sillier. Asham says Beagle's response was to challenge him to a fight (by the flag pole after school, no doubt). Capitals winger Matt Hendricks says it was the other way around, though he credited Asham for abiding by the code. Which I guess calls for politely asking your opponent if he'd like to, you know, if it's not too much trouble, drop his gloves before you attempt to crack his skull like an eggshell.
"My understanding is (Asham) asked Jay in the way the fights are started," Hendricks told The Washington Post. "Jay obliged, and they scrapped."
That almost sounds civilized.
This doesn't: More than 18,000 people rose in giddy anticipation as the combatants circled. Beagle kept his plastic-shielded helmet on (code violation) but was no match for Asham, who dropped him with a thunderous right to the jaw.
The crowd exploded in delight.
Is this what it felt like inside the Roman Colosseum watching wild beasts tear apart a condemned man?
It was at once exhilarating and nauseating. The exhilaration quickly subsided. Beagle appeared to be out cold before he hit the ice. Asham, acting civilly in the midst of the assault, held Beagle's jersey to soften his face-first fall.
One of these days, somebody will die in an NHL fight. Will people be standing and cheering as it happens?
Having safely deposited Beagle as road kill, Asham skated away and made two gestures he would later describe, quite accurately, as "classless." He was apparently mimicking pro wrestler CM Punk's "Go to Sleep" act.
As if on cue, the Twitter site of WWE Universe -- more than 300,000 followers strong -- tweeted video of the fight accompanied by the following line: "Did this hockey player just tell his opponent to 'go to sleep?' "
Yes. Yes he did. And the site was kind enough to include @CMPunk on the tweet.
To recap the scene: Thousands of adults -- all of them followers of a franchise leading the movement to eliminate head hits -- cheered maniacally as a 25-year-old athlete lay motionless and bleeding because he'd just been punched in the face during a league-sanctioned fight.
It's a 'Rocky' Night in Pittsburgh!
Oh, well, at least both teams followed code by tapping their sticks on the boards as medical personnel helped Beagle off the ice.
Nobody made sense afterward, of course, because the code turns them all into hypocrites. Alex Ovechkin had the nerve to call out Asham for fighting a rookie.
"Not respectful," Ovechkin said.
That's rich, considering Ovechkin has nearly maimed multiple players with reckless hits.
At least Beagle saw it coming. This was not the same as the Islanders' actions last season, when they attacked unsuspecting Penguins players. But it wasn't exactly an advertisement for the sport, either.
Whether it's one enforcer (code for "can't play but sure can box") engaging another in an arranged scrap or a veteran tough guy pounding a puppy, fighting is nothing but a slaughterous sideshow.
And it's painful to watch the game I love turn into that.